Second CA community sued over handling of evacuation during wildfire

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A 94-year-old California resident is suing the senior living community where she was living when a wildfire broke out in October, claiming that she and at least 80 other residents were abandoned by staff members instead of being evacuated.

The woman, Barbara Jeanne Pierce, lived at Oakmont Senior Living's Varenna at Fountaingrove retirement community in Santa Rosa, CA, a sister property to Villa Capri, a neighboring assisted living and memory care community that also is facing a lawsuit over the way staff allegedly handled evacuations during the fire. Villa Capri was destroyed by the wildfire, but Varenna has since reopened.

“Natural disasters are foreseeable, especially in California, and we filed these suits as a wake-up call to all long-term care facilities that they must be prepared to keep their residents safe in an emergency,” said attorney Kathryn Stebner, who is representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits. The latest lawsuit was filed Tuesday.

Oakmont did not respond to McKnight's Senior Living's request for comment by the publication deadline. On its website, however, the company said, “Our heroic Oakmont Senior Living employees kept our residents out of harm's way and successfully evacuated all 435 seniors living at our Santa Rosa properties.” The company also posted thank you notes from residents and family members of residents who were evacuated from Oakmont's communities due to the fires.

Pierce's legal claims against Oakmont include elder abuse, false imprisonment, negligence, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and disability discrimination. She also is seeking a court order requiring adequate evacuation plans in all Oakmont facilities and an unspecified amount of damages.

According to the lawsuit, Pierce, who uses a walker and a wheelchair, was waiting in her bed for several hours Oct. 9 as the fire came close to Varenna and smoke entered the building. Another resident's grandson helped evacuate her, the lawsuit states. According to the complaint, that man saw two Varenna staff members briefly when he arrived but not afterward as he worked for almost three hours to help evacuate about 80 residents. The lawsuit additionally alleges that the grandson's sister arrived at Varenna to help evacuate residents and did not see Varenna staff while she was there for almost two hours.

The lawsuit also alleges:

  • Varenna lost power during the fire and did not have backup generators so that residents with disabilities could use the elevators to evacuate from the upper floors.
  • Oakmont managers advised Varenna staff members to turn off the community's fire alarms, leading some residents to believe that they were not in danger and could wait to begin evacuating.
  • Varenna staff members did not have master keys to all of the apartments, so firefighters had to break through some residents' doors.
  • At least three residents were left behind and were not discovered until late the next morning.

In addition to the two cases against Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management Group regarding the fire evacuation, Stebner's law firm, Stebner & Associates, also filed a class action lawsuit in September against Oakmont Senior Living, claiming consumer fraud related to understaffing at all of Oakmont's assisted living communities in California.

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